Cultivating Buddha-nature in Everyday Activities: Motivation for Young Adults
by Emory Hsu
Author’s preface: A most fortunate event occurred as I was riding in a car with some friends on our way to a dinner. We happened to drive by a building with a golden roof, and I glanced at the sign on the building - Avatamsaka Vihara Buddhist Monastery. Intrigued by the prospect of a temple close by (and admittedly perplexed by the name), I later went online to research what Avatamsaka Vihara was, and learned about the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association.
My idea for this piece stemmed from the questions that some people asked me when they learned I was admitted to Harvard University at age 15. Oftentimes, people have strong yearnings for their teenagers to matriculate at Harvard as well, but sometimes with the wrong reasons and motivations, leading to angst and discontent. While my knowledge of Buddhism and Dharma is not yet very broad or deep, I hope this short piece can calm misguided desires and help plant the seeds of right cultivation for young adults (and their parents) at the intersection of Chinese and American cultures.
Life as a young adult is hectic and busy. Moving out from home to go to college, studying for exams, starting a first job, getting into a serious relationship – young adulthood is a time of transitions, of challenges, of discovery. In the midst of this whirlwind, it is easy to find ourselves constantly pressured and feeling overwhelmed. Who can have time for religion? And in America, Buddhism seems so foreign, like something for our ancestors – is it even relevant here in the States? Yet, as we will see, the Buddha Nature is actually in all of us, and every moment is time with Buddha.
Fifty years ago, Venerable Master Hsuan Hua brought the Dharma to the West and founded what is now today’s DRBA. Fifty years seems like such a long time – over two lifetimes for myself! Back then, our country was dealing with Soviet missiles in Cuba and civil rights in the South, and TV were becoming commonplace – in today’s age of Facebook and Siri, can Venerable Master Hsuan Hua’s message still be relevant to us?
First, we must gain some understanding of what Venerable Master Hsuan Hua’s message is, what the Dharma teaches us. What does it mean to follow Buddhist teachings? Simply put, it means to do good things and keep a peaceful mind. You can call yourself a Buddhist, but that alone does not make you a Buddhist – it’s what you think, say, and act that make up your karmic imprints.
The Buddha taught many different disciples in different methods, so, there is not just one correct means of practicing the Dharma. People have different strengths, and as such will practice the Dharma in different ways. The Buddha’s teachings are profound and may seem unfathomable – there are 84,000 Dharma doors of practice! – but instead of being overwhelmed, we’ll discuss just a very small aspect, a very rudimentary approach. As Venerable Master Hsuan Hua once said, it is impossible for an elementary school student to know the book that a Ph.D. is reading! But it is important to start, for without starting the foundations, we will not end up with anything!
To start, when we wake up each day, even if we are in a big rush, we should take a few moments to contemplate our motivations, to think about doing good for others throughout the day. This will put us in a positive mood, hopefully influencing others with our happy attitude. Eventually we may even wish to start the day by meditating! Developing our inner peace is something that takes a lot of skill and practice, something that will not happen overnight. Going to the temple or reading books can enable us to learn some of the various Buddhist techniques that have been developed to help us cultivate our positive mindset. The important thing to remember is that everything takes practice; we should not expect instantaneous changes – just as touching a piano keyboard and plunking a few notes will not suddenly make one a star performer, even though everyone must start that way.
During each day, we face a multitude of interactions, distractions, and challenges. It is important to keep calm, subdue anger, and contemplate patience as we deal with life’s vicissitudes. Oftentimes, the various pressures of life converge to give us a feeling of having a lot to deal with. Homework, exams, projects – these are important, of course, but take time to step back and look at the big picture. Enjoy the fortune of living in the United States, where food, stability, and freedom are the norm. Most people around the world have to worry daily about even those basics! Suddenly, it appears that our concerns about Advanced Placement exams and GPAs seem short-sighted. Of course, that is not to say that we should not try our best in our academic and work endeavors – far from it! Being relaxed in attitude does not mean being lazy or not having lofty goals, but rather, to approach our work with a positive mindset. Rather than anxiously worrying about whether or not we can beat others with our test scores, or get into the top universities, we should strive to do our best, to learn for ourselves in order to contribute to society and help others. This should be our pure motivation! To be able to cultivate merit without being attached to the external reward is a true virtue. If we are too stressed about our grades only because we want to have the fame of being the “top” student, or to make the best project in order to get the most lucrative job, then our afflictions will continue to haunt us. Desire is a limitless thing, and we will never be able to stop the cravings without proper mindset and pure motivation. The psychological stress can lead to burnout and constant dissatisfaction.
Indeed, contentment is truly a virtue to cultivate. If we are content, we will be satisfied. If we cannot learn this skill, even if we have the whole world, we will not be content. Greed and desire will lead to even more longing and unhappiness! Life is ever-changing; fame and fortune are impermanent and illusory. Finding inner peace will come through having altruistic intentions, not amassing the greatest wealth.
Now, how do we cultivate this contentment in our daily activities? Venerable Master Hsuan Hua explained that we are not content because we haven’t developed the skill to subdue our bodies and our minds. This takes much advanced meditation and practice, but the foundation for mental peace is found in our daily life actions. The Buddha’s basic precepts form this foundation, and are encapsulated in DRBA’s Great Guiding Principles. As Venerable Master Hsuan Hua once said, “To avoid fighting is to avoid violating the precept against killing; to avoid being greedy is to avoid violating the precept against stealing; and to avoid being selfish is to avoid violating the precept against lying.” These negative actions harm ourselves and our relationships with others. To be content, we need to abandon all these destructive motivations. The three basic negative motivations – anger, ignorance, and attachment – give rise to hatred, jealousy, resentment, egotistic pride, unethical behavior, etc. These not only lead to a restless mind and constant fear, but also to bad karma for ourselves and to souring interactions with others. For example, if we act dishonestly and cheat, in the short run we may gain a little (some points on an exam, an extra wad of money, short-term sensual pleasures, etc), but we will be constantly fearful about being found out, and have to live with the unease and worry. Furthermore, all actions have consequences, whether in the short term or long run, even if we do not immediately notice them. Negative actions always bear negative fruit. And if someone does find out your actions, other people will be less likely to want to interact with you in the future, leading to loss of potential opportunities. Thus, the best route is to always conduct ourselves with the highest integrity and ethics.
Finally, let us shift gears from basic daily actions and address the feeling that, at least, I have experienced, and may be something many of us who are also young adults and the sons or daughters of immigrants from Asian countries experience. It is the feeling that being a Buddhist puts you as an “outsider” in American communities. Can we be Buddhists and fit in with our friends and the rest of society? Yet, our feelings are just that, perceptions of what we think others think of us, and are often not correct. We cannot even control our own emotions, let alone try to predict those of others. Identity is a perception, a phenomenon that does not really exist in a certain sense. This understanding of identity as a fantasized projection does not mean a nihilistic retreat from the challenges of daily life or a rejection of ourselves as a person, but an increased effort at mindful thoughts and actions for the benefit of all. In case we are still at the beginner level and continue to worry about our appearance as a Buddhist, let us remind ourselves that Americans have freedoms, including of religion. And despite the glorious diversity of faiths in our country, there remains a constant and universal similarity. All the world’s major religions fundamentally have the same basic goals of peace and happiness. Compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, and self-discipline – these are not just the teachings of Buddhists, but of all humankind. By showing respect and ethical behavior, we can demonstrate that living in mutual friendship is possible, that being a Buddhist is truly compatible with being American. This is quite a worthwhile accomplishment of all people, Buddhist or otherwise.
Indeed, we are so fortunate that Venerable Master Hsuan Hua brought the Dharma to the West fifty years ago. Since an astounding 2,500 years ago, Buddhism spread from what is now Nepal throughout Asia, becoming adopted by local cultures, and adapting without losing its core principles. Through Venerable Master Hsuan Hua and others, Buddhism has taken root in the United States in the twentieth century, and will grow in this century, adapting American ways and language without compromising its true teachings. Therefore, instead of being seen as a fringe group, Buddhists in America can be seen as adding to the diversity that contributes to the resiliency of American culture. The challenges lie in fighting the stereotypes - that Buddhists are not all push-over radical pacifists living in caves – and demonstrating the wealth of personalities and approaches that make up American Buddhism. This is only possible when we become truly “informed” about the range and depth of teachings and the sophistication of our religion and not be swamped with accusations of “superstition”, “nihilism”, “unsocial”, etc. When Venerable Master Hsuan Hua spoke, oftentimes the Zen sayings seemed contradictory or even offensive to those without a Buddhist background, but with true understanding we can appreciate the wisdom that Buddhism and masters like the Venerable Hsuan Hua have given us. Thus, we must all strive to continue to learn more about Buddhist teachings, as there is so much to learn. We are the future of Buddhism in America, and must exemplify the upright path through our actions, speech, and mind.
Thus, in our mundane activities at school or at work, having grand goals – but with proper motivation of contributing to society and helping others – and working hard via honest and ethical means to achieve them – becomes part of the foundational steps of Buddhism in daily life. Each and every moment, we can remind ourselves of being content and caring, and treat others with this same patience and respect. In this manner, the basics of Buddha Nature are inside all of us, all the time. As we practice and learn, every day can bring each of us closer to the intersection of wisdom and compassion.